Yemen’s Two Different, Dangerous Wars

Since the war in Yemen garnered worldwide attention last Christmas, when a terrorist trained in the small Middle Eastern country attempted to blow up an American airliner headed for Detroit, Great Britain and the United States have been supporting its counterinsurgency efforts with the latter investing some $150 million this year alone to train and equip Yemeni forces.

Last Thursday, President Barack Obama praised Yemen’s “determination” to fight terror during a phone call with his counterpart Ali Abdullah Saleh, according to the White House. Does the country really deserve Washington’s applause though? Chris Harnisch of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project doesn’t think so.

Harnisch points out that Saleh, who has been in office, in one way or another, since 1978, has never been much of a friend to the United States. Instead, his government has shown tremendous leniency, and sometimes outright support, for Al Qaeda.

For starters, Saleh of Yemen — once known in the Middle East as “Little Saddam” — opposed the American liberation of Kuwait in 1991 when Yemen held a seat on the UN Security Council. In the immediate aftermath of Al Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port in 2000, not only did some Yemeni officials try to hinder the FBI’s investigation and convince agents that the explosion was caused by a malfunction in the vessel’s operating system, but Saleh went as far as to ask the United States to help pay for damage in the port which the United States allegedly caused.

Since, things have started to get more difficult for Saleh and suddenly, he revealed himself into an ally of the West. The quiet war in Yemen that erupted in 2004 has proven difficult for the Yemeni government to control. It has alleged that Iran funds the Shiite uprising in the north of the country while neighboring Saudi Arabia built a wall and conducted airstrikes to prevent rebels from crossing the border into the kingdom. Said rebellion however is distinct from the separatist threat in the central south of the country that is fueled by Al Qaeda.

According to Harnisch, in spite of the millions of aid that have flowed into the country, “the Yemeni government has failed to have any significant impact on [Al Qaeda’s] strength.” Rather it is using the money to suppress the insurgency in the north which poses a greater risk to Saleh’s regime but is of little interest to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the government has actually started negotiating with Al Qaeda.

Of course, Saleh will pretend that the two conflicts are intertwined; that Al Qaeda is communicating and coordinating tactics with the rebels; and that Iran is the evil mastermind planning everything from afar. The average Westerner may have difficulty distinguishing between the two insurgencies, for both would appear to be violent outburst of radical Islamism. One is an internal power struggle however that the United States should want to keep its hands off altogether. The other is a minor terrorist threat which the Yemeni government has, and probably will be, unable to quell, no matter its “determination.”

Geography Matters in Yemen

What was, until recently, a quiet war has, according to some commentators, quickly turned into President Obama’s greatest foreign policy challenge for the year ahead: the ravage that we call Yemen.

Since 2004 the Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shia Islam, are one of the most impoverished people of Yemen and feel discriminated against by their government. Thousands of people have lost their lives in the onslaught already with tens of thousands more on the run.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once legitimized their uprising by referring to it as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although its northern neighbor is, understandably, the most concerned about the violence. Read more “Geography Matters in Yemen”

Yemen, Not So Quiet Anymore

Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen, January 13, 2007 (Eesti)
Sana'a, the capital city of Yemen, January 13, 2007 (Eesti)

The war in Yemen is suddenly not so quiet anymore after an Islamic terrorist who was trained in the country tried to blow up an American airliner headed for Detroit this Christmas. Some forward-looking analysts recently identified the Yemen problem as probably President Obama’s greatest challenge ahead. Considering the regional dynamics involved, that assessment may well turn out to be correct. Read more “Yemen, Not So Quiet Anymore”

Obama’s Real Test Year

Year’s end is near so journalists like to look back and beyond to what’s coming especially, it seems, for the Obama Administration. The president has had his fair share of “litmus tests” already: the overanalyzed “first hundred days” in office; his first foreign visits as head of state; the new Afghan war strategy; his Nobel Prize; and, lest we forget, health-care reform. If it weren’t for the fact that Obama indeed has more on his plate than any president in recent history, the media would no doubt have made it appear so anyway.

Now there is talk that 2010 then will finally be the “real test year” for President Obama — except that this time the promise is uttered by eminent journalist Tom Ricks blogging for Foreign Policy. As it turns out some people in media are beginning to pay attention to the consequences of that quiet war in Yemen. Ricks quotes former Defense Department analyst John McCreary who knows that an American missile strike against Al Qaeda camps in South Yemen last December 17 killed at least one high-level terrorist leader along with several more of his gang. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni commander was able to escape, however. Read more “Obama’s Real Test Year”

The Quiet War in Yemen

It is a conflict that has been going on for several years but one that receives little attention in our Western media: the war in Yemen. Since 2004 the Shiite Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shī‘ah Islam, are one of the most impoverished groups in Yemen and feel discriminated against by the government. Thousands of people have already been killed in the onslaught with tens of thousands more fleeing the conflict zone.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once described their uprising as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although it is especially the former that worries about the violence on its southern borders.

Out of precaution, Saudi Arabia built a wall along parts of the border but increasingly it has had to resort to military force to stop Zaidi fighters from entering the kingdom.

The conflict flared up again last July when in the Sa’dah province, nine foreigners were abducted by Zaidi rebels of which six are still missing. During the weeks thereafter, the Zaidis managed to gain ground until the government launched a major offensive on August 11 with air- and missile strikes against known Zaidi bases in the border area with Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi kingdom got involved early November when a sentry was shot by rebels and border patrols were fired upon. On November 5, Saudi Arabia also launched airstrikes against Zaidi bases, claiming to target only rebels within its borders but actually involving itself in the Yemeni war.

Yemen can use the Saudi help. The government lacks both the funds and the public support to wage a violent campaign in the north and so far, it has been unable to break the deadlock.

It remains to be seen to what extent foreign countries, Saudi Arabia foremost among them but possibly the United States also, are willing to emerge themselves in the trenches to win this battle for Yemen. With the support of American intelligence and special forces, the war could easily be decided in Yemen’s favor but Washington risks upsetting Iran and Islamic fundamentalists worldwide which, considering the American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, is not a welcome prospect right now.